Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 October 2012
Issue No. 1117
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Who will follow Meshaal?

Who will replace Khaled Meshaal as head of Hamas appears to have instigated a behind-the-scenes tug-of-war within the movement, writes Saleh Al-Naami

The activities of Khaled Meshaal, the chief of Hamas's politburo, these days indicate what he plans for himself once he leaves his post after a decade serving as the leader of Hamas. Within a few months, a new boss will be elected in the politburo.

Meshaal travels between Doha, Cairo and Istanbul for talks and meetings with Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and European thinkers of different political, intellectual and party orientations. He seems mostly interested in the realm of intellect and culture.

It is almost certain that Meshaal will not remain Hamas chief since he recently told his colleagues at the general meeting of the group's Shura Council that he intends to leave the position. Through his confidantes, Meshaal has leaked the decision not re-nominate himself, to allow "fresh blood into the movement's leadership positions".

Ezzat Al-Reshk, a member of the group's politburo who is close to Meshaal, wrote on his Facebook page that Meshaal informed a politburo meeting in Cairo about his decision not to run again. Al-Reshk added that Meshaal is keen on stepping aside "in keeping with the spirit of the Arab Spring".

Al-Reshk also said: "Meshaal noted that although he will leave his post at the end of this term, he will not abandon his national role and will continue to work hard to serve our people, our cause and our blessed movement, as well as its endeavour of liberation and return."

"The leadership and key figures of the movement at home and abroad urged Meshaal to continue leading the group. He stood his ground and expressed gratitude for the group's leadership and cadres who expressed their deep respect, appreciation and confidence in him."

Al-Reshk continued: "Meshaal is a model of modesty for leaders and officials [illustrated in] the ability to leave office at the peak of success and dedication despite the fact that he could have continued for another term. No doubt, Meshaal will leave a great void."

Despite Al-Reshk's words, there is no doubt that internal disputes played a key role in pushing Meshaal to take his decision. It is no secret that there are deep rifts between Meshaal and many Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip, especially about the future of Hamas's rule in Gaza and national reconciliation.

Like most other Hamas leaders abroad, Meshaal believes that the group should end its rule in Gaza because of the huge political and economic burdens caused by this model. So much so that Meshaal agreed to the Doha Declaration with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, allowing Abbas to become the prime minister of a "national consensus" government, without consulting the group's leadership in Gaza. Some even publicly censured Meshaal, especially Mahmoud Al-Zahhar.

While all signs indicate that the outcome of recent internal elections to choose the group's leaders boosted Meshaal's standing within Hamas, he nonetheless chose to step down because the roots of disputes between those inside and outside the Gaza Strip still stand. Meshaal knows he would win a large enough majority that would make his decisions effective within Hamas but also that the group's real weight is inside Palestine, through their confrontation with the Israeli occupation. This enables Hamas leaders at home, especially in Gaza, to greatly influence the course of events even if they are not as influential within the group's institutions.

Some believe that transformations in the Arab world and Meshaal's forced exit from Damascus as the Syrian revolution intensified, as well as Jordan's refusal to allow him to reside there, made him realise that the margin of manoeuvrability for Hamas leaders abroad has largely diminished. This despite the gains of the Muslim Brotherhood in Arab states where revolutions for democratic transformation occurred, especially Egypt (the Brotherhood is the mother organisation of Hamas). Meshaal understands that the countries where the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power are facing many domestic problems that distract new leaderships from focusing on the Palestinian cause.

The question is now, who could succeed Meshaal as the leader of Hamas? Informed sources in the group tell Al-Ahram Weekly that it is unlikely that any of Hamas's leaders inside will be elected to succeed Meshaal. Some media outlets proposed that Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh could be a possible candidate, but the source said there are many "national and political considerations that prevent the nomination of a leader from inside to succeed Meshaal".

The source added: "The fact that the majority of Palestinians are outside the country requires someone who represents Palestinians abroad to assume the top position. At the same time, the politburo chief should have the skill for political and diplomatic movement to strengthen the group's ties with Arab and Islamic countries, especially in the post-Arab Spring phase."

The source added that another key reason why the politburo chief should be located abroad is to be able to carry out the necessary networking to ensure financial support for the group.

While Meshaal's decision to leave for good seems final, he is keen on seeing one of his close associates succeed him, but not his deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouk, who is located in Cairo because they do not see eye-to-eye. Those close to Meshaal did not like the idea that Abu Marzouk would be the easiest choice to succeed Meshaal because the second-in-command has "warmer" ties with Hamas leaders in Gaza.

Osama Hemdan, in charge of the group's foreign relations and who is close to Meshaal, asserted that list of candidates will be long, in an indication that there are other serious contenders other than Abu Marzouk.

Hamas sources told the Weekly that Hemdan's statements are part of a "tug-of-war" within the group, because Meshaal wants one of his confidantes -- Saleh Al-Aruri, politburo member in charge of prisoner affairs and who currently resides in Turkey -- to become the next leader. The source noted Al-Aruri's strength is not only because Meshaal supports him, but also because he is well respected by everyone inside the group for his "rich experience in the struggle" against occupation.

Al-Aruri spent 15 years in occupation jails after he was convicted of founding the Ezzeddin Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's military wing in the West Bank. Al-Aruri is also highly esteemed by Hamas prisoners, whether those still in jail or released, because of his "steadfastness" during interrogation by Israel's intelligence agency, Shin Bet, despite being brutally and continuously tortured.

The source said the race for the top job could be confined to Al-Aruri and Abu Marzouk who both have strong and weak points. They both have the advantage of living abroad, although Abu Marzouk is in a better position because he is present in the Arab region and has experience within the group. Al-Aruri, nonetheless, has roots in the West Bank since his family lives in Arura village in Ramallah district, like Meshaal who hails from Selwad, also in Ramallah district.

In all events, whoever steps into Meshaal's shoes once he leaves is unlikely to make any serious changes in the group's position on the conflict with Israel, or reconciliation with Fatah.

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